Opinion Piece: Is Negative Culture the Real Reason Teachers Are Leaving the Profession?
I have been reading a lot about graduate teachers lately and how they're leaving the teaching profession in droves. As someone who quit full time teaching after only two years despite getting outstanding student results, I thought I would add my two cents to the conversation.
Image caption: Me the summer before I started teaching.
I thought I would start off by recounting my first weeks and months at my first school as a teacher. I was 22 and applied for a teaching position through the government-mandated channels. That is to say, I applied, interviewed and got the job legitimately. I had not known anyone at the school. No friend or family member gave me a leg up.
I spent my summer preparing curriculum for my new classes, buying professional clothing and brushing up on some content that I was rusty on. Then, summer over, I walked into my school...and felt like I had marched head first into a brick wall. The hostility directed towards me was visceral. No one would talk to me, they wouldn't let me sit with them at lunchtime, they wouldn't even point me in the right direction when I was lost. And that curriculum I was told to prepare, that I had spent my summer working on? It was the wrong curriculum. I had been told the wrong thing.
What had I done wrong? Why was everyone so mean to me? After several weeks of this, one teacher took pity on me and whispered to me to hang in there, that I was impressing everyone with my hard work and easy manner with the students.
"Their opinion of you is changing."
"What do you mean?" I whispered back, heart in my throat. I was finally getting some answers.
You see, at the end of the previous school year the principal had decided not to renew the contract of one of the school's staff members. He decided to get some fresh blood in, a graduate who would not only be cheaper in a world of tight budgets, but would breathe some fresh air into the school. He chose me. The teachers were angered by this and wanted to see me fail, to prove to the boss that you cannot replace experience.
So they set out to make my life a living hell. Me, at 22 years old. They were old enough to be my parents, were supposed to care about the future of the younger generation. I am shaking as I write this, over 10 years on.
Image caption: Me about 3 months before I quit. I can't believe how exhausted and unhappy I look. I lost so much weight that I couldn't afford to lose from the stress.
I get really angry when people tell me I should return to teaching, but at a more academic school. "Your problem is that you had terrible students," I have been told countless times. Wrong. I loved my students. Being in the classroom with them was the only time I was happy in the job. It was the comments under the breath in the staff room, the snide remarks should I dare say anything in a meeting, the downright aggressive behaviour of many of the teachers, that destroyed the profession for me.
I now teach in a private setting where I am valued as the expert that I am. Until the birth of my son I was in charge of the hiring and firing of teachers. I hired a range of age groups, personalities and experience levels. As long as you had passion and cared about my students, you were fine by me. But I would be damned if I would let any of my teachers treat someone the way I was treated when I first started, back when I was little more than a child myself.
You want to retain good quality teachers in your school? Take a good hard look at the culture in your work environment and you may just find it's not the workload that is losing you staff. I can only speak from my own experiences, of course, but those experiences were so grim that it would take a lot to convince me to go back to school.